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What is a Stevedore?

A stevedore is a key player in the logistics chain, expertly loading and unloading cargo from ships, ensuring goods move smoothly across the seas. Their skillful orchestration keeps global trade flowing. Want to uncover how their day-to-day operations impact the world economy? Join us as we explore the lifeblood of international commerce through the eyes of a stevedore.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A stevedore is someone who loads and unloads ships, typically working in a team to ensure that the process is smooth and efficient. People who do this job are iconic figures in many cultures, thanks to their extreme strength and infamously impolite mouths; historically, they were known for having quite salty language, just like sailors. They have also played a vital role in the labor movement in many parts of the world, and today, stevedores tend to be members of unions, ensuring that they receive reasonable rates of pay and protection from grueling hours and dangerous conditions.

People have used this term to describe someone who handles the loading and unloading of ships since the 1700s. It comes from the Spanish estibador, which is derived from estibar, “to stow,” a word that in turn originates in the Latin word stipare, “to pack.” The usage of the word undoubtedly spread through sailors, who are famous for bringing snippets of foreign language around the world with them.

A stevedore watches as cargo is loaded onto a ship.
A stevedore watches as cargo is loaded onto a ship.

In addition to being referred to as a stevedore, these dock workers are also known as longshoremen or dockers, depending on regional preference. “Longshoreman” is especially common in North America, and is probably derived from “man along the shore,” a very apt description of someone who does this job on a continent where many ships are unloaded offshore and onto small boats to ensure that their goods reached small communities.

A stevedore is also referred to as a longshoreman.
A stevedore is also referred to as a longshoreman.

By tradition, stevedores are hired by the day, as needed, although some ports maintain a permanent dock staff. Brute strength isn't the only trait the person possesses, although it is important. In addition to being strong, the individual must also be very familiar with ships, as he or she needs to know the best way to stow a wide variety of cargo items. Historically, this was extremely difficult, thanks to the use of varied packing containers; now that most cargo goes by container, this part of the job is a little less challenging.

Cargo is loaded and unloaded from ships by a stevedore.
Cargo is loaded and unloaded from ships by a stevedore.

Stevedores also have to be able to handle dock equipment, such as cranes and forklifts, safely and efficiently, and they need to be very aware of emerging safety issues, including hazardous materials on board the ship and around the docks. They are often encouraged to look out for each other on the docks, where conditions can change rapidly, and they have carried this fellowship with them in the tradition of unionization. Someone who wishes to join the union as a stevedore must generally exhibit the basic necessary skills before he or she will be accepted, and in some ports, a person cannot get work without a union card, making membership critical.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a stevedore, and what do they do?

Stowing cargo on a ship became easier with the advent of shipping containers.
Stowing cargo on a ship became easier with the advent of shipping containers.

A stevedore, also known as a longshoreman or dockworker, is a laborer who is employed at the docks to load and unload cargo from ships. They are responsible for the safe and efficient handling of goods, which includes operating heavy machinery like cranes and forklifts, securing cargo for transport, and ensuring accurate inventory management. Stevedores play a crucial role in the global supply chain, facilitating international trade by transferring goods from maritime vessels to land transportation.

How has the role of a stevedore evolved over time?

Historically, stevedores manually loaded and unloaded ships' cargo, a physically demanding and time-consuming task. With the advent of containerization in the mid-20th century, the role of stevedores has evolved significantly. According to the World Shipping Council, containerized shipping now accounts for approximately 60% of all seaborne trade. This shift has led to increased mechanization and specialization in stevedoring tasks, requiring stevedores to be skilled in operating modern loading equipment and managing complex logistics.

What skills and qualifications are required to become a stevedore?

Becoming a stevedore typically requires a high school diploma or equivalent, along with specialized training in cargo handling and equipment operation. Physical strength and stamina are essential due to the demanding nature of the job. Additionally, stevedores must possess skills in teamwork, problem-solving, and communication, as they often work in fast-paced, dynamic environments. Certifications in heavy machinery operation and safety protocols are also beneficial and sometimes required by employers.

What are the safety concerns associated with stevedoring?

Stevedoring is considered one of the more hazardous occupations due to the risks involved in handling heavy cargo and operating large machinery. Common safety concerns include accidents related to equipment failure, falls from heights, exposure to hazardous materials, and injuries from lifting and moving cargo. To mitigate these risks, strict safety regulations and training are enforced. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidelines to ensure safe working conditions for dockworkers.

What impact do stevedores have on the economy?

Stevedores have a significant impact on the economy by enabling the efficient movement of goods across the globe. Their work at ports contributes to the functionality of the supply chain, affecting industries ranging from agriculture to manufacturing. According to the American Association of Port Authorities, U.S. ports support over 23 million jobs and contribute $321 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. The efficiency and productivity of stevedores directly influence trade volumes, economic growth, and job creation in related sectors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

irontoenail

@bythewell - It was also very dangerous work. I think it basically still is, although now they mostly use machines to move the crates. Back then it was all winches and pulleys and if something failed, because of a lack of funds, or care, then people would die, or be maimed. And, of course, there was no insurance, so they would be reduced to begging.

bythewell

I actually saw an exhibit the other day on a revolution that occurred because of stevedores. They were working in atrocious conditions and were being paid a pittance and in the end they decided to have a stevedore strike. When you think about it, it's a situation ripe for unions to form, because it's a relatively skilled profession in that you need to know what you're doing, but you can use uneducated workers who might not know how much money they should be paid.

And the workers are all going to be big, brawny men (at least back in the day) who aren't going to easily give in to intimidation (or be pleased at any attempt at it).

So I can well believe that they banded together to form unions and improve their working conditions.

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    • A stevedore watches as cargo is loaded onto a ship.
      By: potowizard
      A stevedore watches as cargo is loaded onto a ship.
    • A stevedore is also referred to as a longshoreman.
      By: Daniel Ernst
      A stevedore is also referred to as a longshoreman.
    • Cargo is loaded and unloaded from ships by a stevedore.
      By: benjaminlion
      Cargo is loaded and unloaded from ships by a stevedore.
    • Stowing cargo on a ship became easier with the advent of shipping containers.
      By: Gerard Koudenburg
      Stowing cargo on a ship became easier with the advent of shipping containers.